Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ian Roulstone & John Norbury's "Invisible in the Storm"

Ian Roulstone is professor of mathematics at the University of Surrey. John Norbury is a fellow in applied mathematics at Lincoln College, University of Oxford. They are the coeditors of Large-Scale Atmosphere-Ocean Dynamics.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather, and reported the following:
On page 99 we announce the result of the first weather forecast to be produced using arithmetic and the laws of physics. The calculation had taken Lewis Fry Richardson, one of the most enigmatic of British scientists, over two years to complete during the First World War, and the answer was disastrously wrong. But Richardson made at least two major breakthroughs, as we recount later in the chapter. First, his method for converting the laws of physics, which are usually expressed in terms of calculus and are essentially impossible to solve using pencil and paper, into a form that facilitates explicit computation, lies at the heart of modern weather and climate prediction models. Second, Richardson went on to diagnose the problem with his calculation and showed us that we need more than just data, the laws of physics, and a machine (human or electronic) for number-crunching our way to predicting the weather for tomorrow: we need mathematics. Today, if all we did was to feed millions of observations from around the world into our supercomputer-based forecasting systems, the result would be rubbish. We actually need math to understand what orchestrates the myriad of local interactions between water, air, heat and wind, to produce coherent swirling cyclones, or even superstorms such as Hurricane Sandy.

State-of-the-art mathematics helps us to sort out the predictable from the unpredictable aspects of weather, and this means we can produce forecasts that are useful for almost everything – from deciding whether to wear a raincoat, to working out what flood defences are needed to protect communities in decades to come.
Learn more about Invisible in the Storm at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue